For Tyler’s birthday, I gave him a butterfly garden.
We ordered our caterpillar larvae, which were rerouted when they couldn’t be delivered on a windy day when nobody was home to receive them. Mail carriers are picky about live creatures.
Finally, they came. Five little caterpillars. Charming little guys. The boys named them:
Tricia (I was deeply honored to make the list), Sunshine, Harry, Wilbur, and Lois.
But then, after some debate, Lois was renamed Thor.
We watched them so closely, studying them every day. The boys checked on them first thing in the morning, and they said good night to them before he went up the stairs.
We watched them climb to the top of their jar, and dangle from the top like hanging apostrophes.
We watched as each one grew the chrysallis, perhaps my most favorite stage of all. I thought their cocoons would be hard, grayish white, but they are irridescent like the scales of a fish, shining and glittering in the sunlight.
I became wordless with symbolic parallels: the most beautiful part of the cycle was when the butterfly was held captive in her cocoon, when she couldn’t see the sunshine, when the greatest challenge lay before her.
Somehow, in retrospect, I loved that even more than her grand emerging, her careful wings unfolding. So much happened when she was tucked away, hidden from us.
We watched as they sensed us near them, as their cocoons wobbled and shook to ward off predators. They didn’t know we loved them so much. They didn’t know they were safe.
We watched them emerge – three of them, then four, and finally five. Each with painted wings and a flittery-fluttery courageous spirit.
We lined their garden with flowers and leaves, and we sprinkled sugar water to feed them each day.
I didn’t foresee that this gift to Tyler to be such a gift to me, to watch five versions of the same life cycle unfold in my living room. I watched closely too, right alongside the boys, all three of us budding scientists.
Of the whole transformation that happens inside that glittery chrysallis, I was most fascinated to see the difference in the butterflies’ legs. As caterpillars, they had pairs and pairs of creepy-crawling feet, but when they emerged as butterflies, they had six long, sturdy legs to stand on – and taste with. I just had no idea how much could happen in there.
I used my happy voice as I began to talk about the day we would set them free. “Won’t that be a special day, guys? Won’t that be beautiful to set them free and let them fly wherever they want to go?”
Tyler was skeptical. “No. That will not be a happy day.”
I know, buddy. I’m just trying to talk it up so we can let them go, let them be free, instead of holding them inside our home until we have to watch them die.
I counted them each morning. “Three, four… and…. aha! Five.” Whew. I was ever afraid one would die overnight. They only live for a couple of weeks after they emerge, so I knew we didn’t have an unlimited amount of time. Still, I couldn’t let them go on my own. They belonged to the boys. And one boy in particular was pretty attached.
“I think we should set them free today, Mommy.”
I dropped everything I was doing and followed his lead. We set their garden on the sidewalk, and we took turns reaching inside, sliding a finger so carefully underneath a butterfly, letting her climb onto our fingertips, and then bringing her out to freedom.
It was so great. So, so great.
(Great is the word I use when I can’t find the better one. This was even better than great.)
You’re free, butterflies. Do your beautiful butterfly thing.